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The Return of Leviathan?

March 21, 2011

Hobbes wrote in Leviathan in 1651 that monarchy, a form of absolute rule, is the best form of the state for practical reasons. He believed that the engine of the state, a single sovereign, could better look after the interests, security, and prosperity of its citizens than other forms of government. Although monarchy is by no means making a reappearance on the political stage of the western world, but the trend of the last century has been towards larger and larger government and increased intervention in private life.

I ran across an extensive and thought provoking article in this week’s Economist entitled “A Special Report on the Future of Leviathan.” The author argues that “everywhere the state is big, inefficient, and broke”. He observes that the pervasive trend of the last century has been towards larger and larger governments. The size increase in government has been promoted by many on all sides of the political spectrum, even conservatives. Graphs show that government spending as %GDP has steeply and steadily increased over that period. War, repeated economic crises, and calls for social reform have all contributed to increase in state size. The question now is when (and if) it will end?

Although some conservative leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan “sparked a ‘counterblast’ to halt Leviathan,” the state has continued to grow. In Europe, where government was bigger to begin with, it continued to grow, eventually resulting in crises in Greece and Spain and major deficit problems elsewhere. In the U.S., George W. Bush increased government spending more than any president for fifty years. Some though that the rise of global capitalism would stem state growth, but it did not. Now we face an enormous budget deficit.

The most important part of this is that the size and inefficiency of the modern state threatens the legitimacy of democracy. The author, John Micklethwait, shares the views of some who fear if the state continues to spend too much without delivering services efficiently, democracy itself is in danger. The fear is that people may turn to the system which “makes the trains run on time,” as Tony Blair puts it.

Many look to China and see the success of an authoritarian regime at growing a nation’s economy. Perhaps a few strong and decisive leaders, as Hobbes might argue, better serves the needs of the people. But I–and I think all of us–hope this is not the solution. To fix this problem, we need radical reform to reign in government spending, make government more efficient in providing goods and services and acting decisively, and have government help facilitate private enterprise and Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) rather than taking on their burden.

As leaders and best (Go Blue!), we have a responsibility to help ensure the evolution of the state goes in the right direction. Hobbes published Leviathan in 1651, but we are here in 2011.

Here’s the link to the article. I highly recommend it.

http://www.economist.com/node/18359896?story_id=18359896

2 Comments
  1. Robert Tepper permalink
    March 21, 2011 8:31 PM

    I really appreciate this post and also checked out the article in Economist — excellent. You bring up a very relevant point about the current state of the U.S. government and its size. There is no doubt that the size of our government has increased and continues to increase. It seems as though the government regulates almost everything, especially private business. Also, new government programs continue to spring up left and right and new laws are brought up in Congress that seem to limit citizens’ choices, especially when it comes to health care reform. I don’t believe that this country will ever cease to be democratic in lieu of a “return of Leviathan” — there will always be fair elections of government officials. However, it is possible that “Leviathan” has taken on a new meaning in this day in age — a democratic government that attempts to take substantial control over its citizens through legislation and expansion.

  2. alexqhe permalink
    March 22, 2011 10:53 PM

    Thanks for the link to the article — it really was an interesting read.

    Isn’t it a bit myopic to say, though, that even when “a few strong and decisive leaders” a la Hobbes might better serve the needs of the people, that you’d rather it not be the solution? From a logical standpoint, this makes very little sense to me. If having a few strong and decisive leaders really did better serve the needs of the populace – the greatest good for the greatest number of people – than why should it not be the solution?

    In line with the topic of the unrestrained expansion of modern government, I read an article yesterday at BusinessInsider that I found thoroughly interesting as well. It’s about the increasingly and suspiciously large role that secrecy is playing in the American government, and how secret measures have become the rule rather than the exception. At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, articles like this really make me shudder and question the politics behind what is done in our name. I don’t think fiscal insecurity is the only thing to be worried about when it comes to the size of our government.

    Check it out if you’re interested:

    http://www.businessinsider.com/bloggers-hackers-and-leakers-the-next-american-revolution-2011-3

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